What is herstory?

Published : Nov 19, 2004 00:00 IST


From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women (in three volumes) by Marilyn French; McArthur & Company; 16.99 each.

Women in England 1760-1914: A Social History by Susie Steinbach; Weidenfeld & Nicolson; pages 320, 25.

MARILYN FRENCH set herself a vast task in deciding to produce this monumental history of women, and the decision itself is admirable. It has been argued many times that, as Jane Austen said nearly 200 years ago, "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story... the pen has been in their hands."

A vital part of the revolution forged by feminism in the past century was the attempt to change this - to open out the untold stories of women. To an extent, that has now happened; and all sorts of useful things, from women's studies courses to biographies of previously marginalised women and anthologies of forgotten women's poetry, have contributed to a change in the way historians assess the past. The call for "herstory", as this concentration on forgotten women was half-jokingly termed, seems much less revolutionary now. Look, for instance, at the new edition of the Dictionary of National Biography: one in 10 entries are about women, compared to one in 20 a century ago.

But Marilyn French feels that there is an untold story out there, and that there is still a pressing, political necessity to bring it to light. If you know her work you will be familiar with what she wants to show here. In her polemic Beyond Power she presented a potted history of the world, in which she argued that it moved from simple, matrilineal societies to complex, patriarchal ones, and that women had been oppressed in all places and all times since this shift took place. She also believes that feminism now presents the possibility that society can finally move beyond this universal oppression. But while Beyond Power was persuasive polemic, in these great tomes her argument is almost overwhelmed by the weight of material.

The experience of reading these three books is frustrating, even if - perhaps particularly if - you admire what Marilyn French is trying to do. I am absolutely at one with her view that we too often lose sight of the scale and depth of oppression that men have exercised over women throughout history, which means that we lose sight of the scale, unparalleled by any other social revolution, of what feminism has achieved and what it demands for the future. But, impressive as they are in range and ambition, I still found these books a problematic read.

Above all this is because they are so undisciplined. What you get is not a narrative, but a great patchwork of stories, arguments and assertions. Apparently randomly chosen details about the fashion in medieval Japan for blackening teeth with oxidised iron filings, or the fact that in 13th century Europe the font water used for christening "was changed only when a baby defecated in it", jostle with Marilyn French's opinions about why wearing high heels now is like having your feet bound, or why feminism is inherently socialist.

Given the lack of narrative shape and immense length - more than 1,700 pages all told - perhaps Marilyn French wanted this work to be something of an encyclopaedia. Certainly the bibliographies will be a great source for researchers in the future. Still, though I am not the person to pick up errors in the sections on pre-colonial Africa or feudal Japan, I found myself arguing with her all too frequently when she moved closer to home.

She states, for instance, that in 1913, "as the king rode to the Derby, Emily Wilding Davison hurled herself in front of his horse crying `Votes for Women'". In fact Emily Wilding Davison ran on to the race course and was killed by a horse owned by the king, but being ridden by the jockey Herbert Jones. She states that in 18th century America, "the law placed no restraints on men's cruelty. Wife-beating was legal if a man used a switch no thicker than his thumb (`the rule of thumb')". But other historians have shown that there were laws at that time in north America that prohibited violence against wives. The phrase "rule of thumb" is generally held now to derive from the practice of judging a measurement with your thumb rather than a ruler.

And if you wanted this to be a comprehensive encyclopaedia, you would also look for more understandable decisions on what was included and what was not: Why does the volume on the modern world offer 16 pages on Algeria - but only nine lines on Iran and only four negligible mentions of Afghanistan? Why do the indexes yield 11 mentions for Mary Wollstonecraft but not one for Virginia Woolf? Why is there no index at all for the first volume?

WHEN I started reading Marilyn French's work, I had recently finished a book that works with similar material on a far smaller canvas and in a far less polemical way: Susie Steinbach's Women in England 1760-1914. Susie Steinbach has a quiet, unassuming style that can drift towards dullness, but her achievement is to show the gains of feminism not by assertion, but by the gradual build-up of evidence. She gives the reader a nuanced understanding of how women's convictions about their rights changed their lives in that period, against all the odds. After reading these books, I felt glad that both had been written and yet longed for something more from each.

Yet for all its frustrating qualities, Marilyn French's work is stuffed with enough nuggets to keep you wondering and pondering. She draws on a vast body of research and help from consultants in all sorts of fields, to open out areas that are rarely accessible. She tells you of heroines who have never had their due, from Queen Nzinga of 17th century Angola, who freed slaves, tried to defeat the Portuguese imperialists, and who kept a harem of young men; to Kanno Suga, the turn-of-the-century Japanese anarchist who planned to assassinate the emperor. She emphasises the tradition of women's resistance in the past two centuries, from the female reform societies that published the names of men who visited brothels in 1834, to the women who crowded out the House Un-American Activities Committee in protest against the arms race in 1962.

Above all, she recalls the depth and breadth of the war that has been waged on women down the centuries, the restrictions placed in so many times and so many places on their sexuality, their education, their freedom to travel, their voices. And though Marilyn French's most effective piece of feminist polemic was her 1977 novel, The Women's Room, which defined a previous generation's dreams and fears about feminism, she has not lost hope, but remains passionately engaged with a dream for the future.

In her last chapters, she puts the emphasis on how feminism is building international solidarity, by drawing us through the arguments and achievements of gatherings such as the Earth Summit of 1992 or the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. Although she does not seem over-optimistic about the power of these bloated meetings to change the course of history, this emphasis is the right one. The development and spread of a new moral ideology centring on human rights is feeding the growth of a pragmatic feminism today. This feminism crosses cultures and national boundaries; it is flexible enough to take on different colours in different places without losing its irreducible commitment to women's rights as human rights. This growing international solidarity is what gives us hope for the future; a hope, against the odds, that the global oppression of women may be on the wane.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
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